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El Niño Southern Oscillation: Definition, Physical Basis and Origin, Impacts

El Niño Southern Oscillation: Definition, Physical Basis and Origin, Impacts

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Published by Daniel Wakeling
Group essay providing a concise review on the El Nino Southern Oscillation. Excellent teamwork and communication skills were shown within the group; achieving an outstanding mark of 85%.
Group essay providing a concise review on the El Nino Southern Oscillation. Excellent teamwork and communication skills were shown within the group; achieving an outstanding mark of 85%.

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Published by: Daniel Wakeling on Feb 28, 2013
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El Niño Southern Oscillation: Definition, Physical Basis andOrigin, Impacts1 Introduction
 1.1 Positive feedback mechanism
 
El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) involves variability in the eastern and westerntropical Pacific (Wang and Fiedler, 2006), encompassing a positive ocean (El Niño)-atmosphere (Southern Oscillation) feedback mechanism first hypothesised by Bjerknes(Bjerknes, 1969). El Niño events are triggered by an initial positive Sea Surface Temperature(SST) anomaly in the eastern equatorial Pacific. This reduces the east-west temperaturegradient and weakens the Walker circulation. The weakened Walker circulation reduces theeast-west pressure gradient and hence the strength of the easterly trade winds. This leads to adeepening of the thermocline in the eastern Pacific so warm water rises here, reinforcing theinitial positive SST anomaly, leading to El Niño conditions (Figure 1) (Wang and Picaut,2004).
Figure 1
Schematic diagram illustrating usual El Nino conditions experienced over thePacific Ocean. Convective rising is found over the central equatorial Pacific and warm SSTsover the central and eastern equatorial Pacific. (NOAA, 2005).
 
1.2 Characteristics of ENSO
ENSO has two phases; El Niño the warm phase, and La Niña the cold phase. El Niñois associated with a positive temperature and precipitation anomaly in the eastern and centralequatorial Pacific, whereas La Niña is associated with a negative temperature anomaly in theeastern and central equatorial Pacific (Wang and Fiedler, 2006).El Niño and La Niña events are highly variable and tend to alternate every 2-7 years.They are also variable on a multi-decadal scale, as from the mid-1970s, ENSO was moreenergetic with more El Niño and La Niña events than in the preceding decades (Wang andPicaut, 2004).El Niño and La Niña episodes typically last approximately 9-12 months and are both phase-locked to the seasonal cycle, with maximum (El Niño) and minimum (La Niña) SSTanomalies observed between November and January (Wang and Fiedler, 2006).
1.3 Methods of observation
The TOGA decade (1985-1994), an intensive period of research following the unusualdevelopment and strength of the 1982-83 El Niño, was important as it led to the developmentof an ocean observing system, allowing real-time measurements of key variables. This led tothe production of more observational papers allowing a better understanding of importantaspects of ENSO; such as long-term mean conditions and ENSO variability (McPhaden et al.,1995; Wang and Picaut, 2004).
 
2 Areas of current research
2.1 Negative feedback mechanisms
Despite agreement on the positive feedback mechanism that initiates El Niño events,scientists have yet to reach strong agreement with respect to the termination of El Niñoevents and the transition into negative phases (Wang and Fiedler, 2006). As of writing, four theories are dominant in attempting to explain how ENSO returns to a negative phase; thedelayed oscillator (Suarez and Schopf, 1988), recharge oscillator (Wyrtki, 1985; Jin, 1997a;1997b), western Pacific oscillator (Weisberg and Wang, 1997) and the advection reflectionoscillator (Picaut et al., 1997).The models each combine different aspects of the climatic system together intoconceptual ENSO models, which focus on the termination of the warm phase and transitioninto the cool, negative phase (Wang and Fiedler, 2006). Each model however focuses arounda different mechanism as being integral for the creation of the negative feedbacks required toenter a negative ENSO phase.Similarities exist between the models with respect to mechanisms, including the roleof upwelling Kelvin waves. These act to bring cooler water from the deep water to thesurface via Ekman pumping (Wang and Fiedler, 2006). The cooler waters mix with thesurface mixed layer and act to neutralise positive SST anomalies across the Pacific,dampening and ultimately reversing the El Niño. Critically however the mechanisms behindthe creation of Kelvin waves differ between the models.Although the models are scrutinised through calibration, validification andverification; no single model has emerged significantly as being more favourable inexplaining the negative feedbacks within the ENSO cycle (Wang and Fiedler, 2006; Wang etal., 2012). This is partially owed to the short climate record for ENSO, making calibrationand verification highly difficult; an obstacle for modelling ENSO feedback mechanismswhich cannot be easily managed. A unified oscillator theory was developed containingelements of the main four models to compensate but most of the problems associated with themodels were inherited and not tackled with (Wang, 2001).

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